history - December 20, 2023

Interested in integers




My senior students showed a somewhat surprising loyalty. All three of them were back in the classroom for the third week.

This time I wanted to talk about Egyptian mathematics. At first everything went surprisingly smoothly. My second-born, Vesna, was not interrupting us. Ida did not seem to be angry with me. Franko and Vera quietly sat down and were waiting for me to start.

"We are lucky," I said, "that the Egyptians were using papyrus. Quite some Egyptian knowledge has been preserved because of that. The Chinese and Indians used bark and bamboo instead, so most of their writings are now lost."

"You forgot something," said Vera.

"I just barely started."

"Coffee," said Vera.

"Ah, yeah. He totally forgot about coffee," agreed Franko. "Except that I drink beer."

Even Ida quietly nodded.

I kindly asked my wife to bring us coffee and beer.

"You have such a wonderful wife," said Vera. "I wonder how she ended up with you."

"Many people have asked me this before," I said. "I don’t know, she just had bad luck I suppose. Anyway, a tremendous discovery happened in 1858 when Alexander Henry Rhind, a Scottish antiquarian, purchased the so-called Papyrus Rhind in Luxor. It was a papyrus written around 1650 B.C. And it was, it’s somehow hard to believe, about mathematics."

"It has been quite a while now," said Franko.

I was happy. Franko was listening to me. This was a huge success.

"And she doesn’t seem to want to leave him anytime soon. Despite all the mathematics," continued Franko.

"She has kids with him," said Vera. "Which is kind of surprising. I never thought mathematicians were capable of reproducing."

"Oh, come on!" I exclaimed.

"Just kidding, boy," said Vera. "Please go on."

"Yeah," I said. "One of the most interesting things about Egyptian mathematics is their way of handling fractions. They reduced all fractions to the sum of fractions with 1 as the numerator. Do you still remember what fractions are?"

"No," said Franko. "Not the slightest idea. I am pretty sure it’s not something to eat?"

"Well, it could be," I said. "You know... pizza is usually cut into eight equal slices. One slice is

of the whole pizza. Two slices are
of the whole pizza, which is the same as
."

"I am only interested in one pizza," said Franko. "Or two pizzas. No fractions."

"Yes," I said. "You are interested in integers."

And then I honestly wanted to explain fractions to them. I grabbed the blackboard.

"Boy, we are not in elementary school. Just leave this little blackboard where it is," said Franko, somewhat angry.

"How am I supposed to explain mathematical concepts without writing?" I asked.

"Don’t worry," said Franko. "Just talk. Preferably not about fractions. Or math at all. You can talk about women, for example."

"I wonder why you are here, Franko," I said, and it was meant as a rhetorical question.

"Oh," replied Franko. "Ida promised me a date if I come."

"You pig. You pig. You are lying!" exclaimed Ida.

"No, I am not," replied Franko.

"You’re not going to see me here ever again!" screamed Ida. But she didn’t leave.

"You said I needed to educate myself," said Franko.

"Yes, that’s what I said," replied Ida.

"And you said you would date me then," added Franko.

"You pig. Never! Liar!" Ida was screaming. And that was the end of our meeting as Ida ran out screeching: "You will never see me again!"

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